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Daniel Wu on Finally Finding Better Roles for Asian Men in Hollywood

Daniel Wu as Sunny on AMC's "Into the Badlands" (Image: AMC)

Tomb Raider and Into the Badlands star Daniel Wu recently spoke to The Los Angeles Times about his unique film career. Wu was born and raised in California, but he didn’t start his film career until he moved to Hong Kong. He’s since become a massive star in the Asian market, described in the article as “the Brad Pitt of China” and an “A-lister who gets swarmed by paparazzi whenever he leaves the house.”

And yet, for many years, Hollywood wasn’t interested in an actor with such a phenomenal track record. After he became so successful overseas, Wu returned home to see if he could find roles in the United States. “I came out to Hollywood to see if there was any interest—and there wasn’t, so I just gave up,” Wu said. “I went back. I would take meetings and nothing would come of it. Quite frankly speaking, nothing came of it until recently, in the last few years, when there’s been such a focus on the Chinese box office.”

“It sucks that it was money that motivated that move,” he continued, “but at the same time it’s a good opportunity for everybody. You started to see more Chinese actors appear in Hollywood movies. I could see that that was about to happen, and then it happened … It was this slow progression of people starting to know who I was and then being educated on my influence back in Asia, and realizing, ‘Oh, he speaks perfect English — that’s a major plus.'”

In addition to the money argument, Wu thinks that American culture has become more diverse and global as well: “I think the difference now is the audience is different. The audience is more diverse now not just culturally, but the white kids growing up today are eating Asian food. When I was growing up white kids were like, ‘Hey, what are you eating?’ And that was only 20 years ago.”

Wu has gradually been building a Hollywood profile, with roles in Warcraft, Europa Report, AMC’s Into the Badlands, and now Tomb Raider. As Into the Badlands showrunner Alfred Gough said: “He’s got the charisma, he’s got the chops, and he just really is the full package. And in a world where we’re trying to expand what a leading man looks like in movies—you look at Black Panther and movies like that—I keep telling people, ‘You don’t understand. He’s done it in Asia. You guys are late to the party.'”

Honestly, “late to the party” seems to sum up Hollywood’s treatment of marginalized actors in general. Wu’s experience echoes that of many Asian and Asian-American actors who have struggled to find meaningful roles in a Hollywood which often whitewashes Asian roles, characterizes Asian actors as “not very expressive,” or tries to offer Asian actors minor, stereotypical parts. It’s encouraging to see that things are starting to change, even if that shift has mostly been profit-driven. And the change isn’t limited to movies. As Grace Lee at Glamour wrote, “There is an undeniable new class of handsome Asian male actors dominating TV right now. Vinny Vincent Rodriguez III [from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend], but also Manny Jacinto from The Good Place, and Ross Butler who plays a studly jock on 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale.

As for Wu’s future career? “My favorite genre of filmmaking is crime drama, which I did a lot of in Hong Kong,” he said. “One thing we can’t do in China is heist movies because people doing bad things can’t get away with them; the censorship you have to deal with is the challenge of working in Asia. But I would love to do an Italian Job type heist film … or a comedy.”

(Via The Los Angeles Times; image: AMC)

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